BEIRUT — Syrian government forces have seized three neighborhoods inside Palmyra, a town with famed Roman-era ruins that fell to the Islamic State group last May, state media reported Saturday.
Syrian troops and allied militiamen backed by Russian airstrikes have taken up positions in the three neighborhoods that are part of the modern town, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
Russian jets have carried out 40 air sorties near Palmyra in the past day, hitting 158 targets and killing more than 100 militants, Russia’s defense ministry said. It said 158 targets were hit, more than 100 militants were killed, and four tanks and three artillery positions were destroyed.
Palmyra, affectionately known as the “bride of the desert,” used to attract tens of thousands of tourists every year.
The Islamic State drove out government forces in a matter of days and later demolished some of the best-known monuments in the UNESCO world heritage site. The extremists believe ancient ruins promote idolatry.
The militants also demolished the town’s infamous Tadmur prison, where thousands of Syrian government opponents were reported to have been tortured.
Retaking the town would be a major victory for President Bashar Assad’s government, which has made steady gains in recent months against the Islamic State and other insurgents, assisted since September by Russian airstrikes.
The battle for Palmyra, now entering its fourth week according to the Observatory, has not been easy. Government forces lost at least 18 soldiers Friday alone, including a major general, the Observatory and Islamic State-affiliated media sites reported. At least 56 soldiers have died in fighting this week.
Footage broadcast on Lebanese stations aligned with the Syrian government showed smoke rising over Palmyra’s skyline, as tanks and helicopters fired at positions inside the town. Islamic State began evacuating civilians last week to other parts of its territories in Syria.
No civilians remain in the town, a Palmyra resident who left said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity out of safety concerns.
The fate of the archeological site was not immediately clear. Activists citing sources among advancing government forces said the two sides were fighting over the area, while the Observatory said government forces had retaken the site.
Syrian state media made no mention of the area.
The Islamic State is on the back foot in Iraq and Syria, where forces on the ground have been backed by US-led airstrikes against the extremists. The US-led international coalition estimates that the group has lost 40 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq and around 20 percent of its territory in Syria.
In Iraq, ground forces are working to build on recent gains in Anbar province, and preparing for an offensive on the northern city of Mosul, the largest city held by the militants.
If Syrian government forces retake Palmyra, they will be positioned to advance on the two largest cities held by the Islamic State, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.
Islamic State militants have responded to territorial losses by launching a series of large attacks targeting civilians.
The group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing Friday at a small soccer stadium in the Iraqi city of Iskanderiyah, 30 miles from Baghdad.
The attack killed 41 people and wounded 105, security and health officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
Speaking at a press conference during an official visit to Iraq, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon offered his condolences to the friends and families of those killed, adding that “the international community stands with Iraqis in horror and outrage.”